Delivered in Tallinn in March 2014 to games start-ups on the GameFounders accelerator programme by Kevin Corti (SpiderShedMedia/Evil27 Games as indie games guy) and Don Turner (Blackberry as mobile store guy) who are both visiting mentors to the programme.
In late 2013, we conducted a survey with random delegates at the Eurogamer event at Earl’s Court in London. The purpose was to acquire some initial insight into how users commonly find new mobile games as well as to explore some of the issues around discovery that are specific to mobile games.
- The app stores are currently a key channel to discovering mobile games
- Friends’/social influence (e.g. personal recommendations and ‘word of mouth’) is a very significant influence when deciding what games to play
- Users frequently feel disappointed by games they have installed and a significant number of players feel that they have wasted time and/or money on games they downloaded.
More information below.
Will Freeman has written a good article for PocketGamer that examines the increase in mobile game user acquisition costs over the festive period.
I find this upward trend and one-dimensional thinking to be very sad and worrying for what it means for the larger mobile games ecosystem. The ‘cost’ is not simply fiscal (e.g. in terms of CPI) but much wider in terms of the impact it is having on the wider mobile games ecosystem. I believe that it is damaging to games makers and failing games players alike.
I recently attended the App Marketing Summit in Berlin and many speakers there were proudly talking about how enlightened developers should focus on profitable installs (where LTV>CPI) instead of simply aiming for high chart position or ‘simply’ building huge DAU/MAU levels. Whilst this is true, it is also obvious (sell stuff for more than it costs to make and market….duh!) and doesn’t address the fact that we are fast reaching (or have reached?) the point where only well-funded studios with a portfolio of products, strong IP and which already have an existing audience, have a chance of being commercially sustainable. Is this not the exact same scenario that drove developers away from the traditional triple-A console/PC games market?
My point, however, is not that the temporary utopia where anyone can make a mobile game has been eroded, because it is still perfectly viable for anyone to make a game on mobile. Rather, what vexes me is that if you make a GOOD game that is polished, technically robust, novel, great fun and demonstrably ‘worthy’ of an audience (e.g. the metrics show people engage with it), without the aforementioned commercial capacity and advantages you will have zero (OK, maybe 0.1%) chance of a major breakthrough. There is very little chance, even, of achieving financial breakeven. Ergo, mobile game development is not commercially viable for most game developers.
When the entire industry focuses on using paid-for user acquisition (in-game adverts and cross-promotion) then it is only focussing on ‘pushing’ to that vast ocean of mobile device users, and pushing is proving to necessitate an ever-increasing amount of marketing spondoolies. Focussing only on ‘beating’ the CPI is, ultimately, a battle we are destined to lose as CPI is only ever going to increase. Paying for users is an addiction that this industry has and, currently, accepts but one that needs to overcome for our collective health.
Paid-user acquisition is also highly geared towards supporting large-scale F2P games that successfully milk a minority of users or premium games based around very strong IP that people will pay for before properly trying the product. I have no axe to grind with either – I’m a big fan of F2P, when done well, and who doesn’t find a Minion funny? – but it makes the range of games available very limited in nature. It leads to an endless number of ever-so-slightly improved clones of a small range of game genres and themes (fancy another match3 or endless runner game anyone?).
That means that the vast potential for smaller-scale but creatively and technically innovative games, or simply games aimed at smaller niche audiences, is completely neglected. This isn’t a plea for artificially propping up wannabe indie dreamers; this is about wanting to engender a genuine ecosystem where consumers (our users, our customers, the nice people what pay our bills) get the games they want and those that make them can afford to do so. Should it not be possible to make and games for, say, £100k and to achieve net sales (after Apple, hosting etc) of £200k? Would that not be a good commercial outcome? Is that not profitable? Could that be sustainable?
The paid-user acquisition model is ever so wasteful; it is like paying a bunch of rich foreign fishing boat owners to hang a 10-mile long fishing net off the back of dozens of boats to catch one million sardines when you only want (and can only sell!) the couple of hundred tuna that also get caught. Everything else gets thrown back into the sea. The rich boat owners are the plethora of advertising and cross-promotion networks and the dead sardines get resold again and again to the next unsuspecting and naive customer (aka games developer). Now you can argue (as indeed I have done) that this ‘waste’ is irrelevant so long as the net (pardon the pun) result is that there is more cash in your bank account that when you started. How sustainable is that though? No matter how clever you are with data analysis, ultimately games making in involves creative and commercial risk. I keep hearing that F2P is now well-understood, yet we all see plenty of F2P games continue to fail commercially even though they, presumably, survived the ‘culling of the ugly children’ stage of development when the metrics are not strong enough. The costs of production and the cost of marketing are rising sharply. Would not a more intelligent approach be to try and find ways to acquire users at a lower cost? This industry has always been at the forefront of technology development. It is strange that it isn’t using that expertise to improve the ways in which we match games with gamers.
Paid UA will always exist and will rightly always be part of the marketing mix but right now it is pretty much the only strategy and vast sums of money that are being spent in/on games is leaching away from those that make the games to those that operate the advertising networks. Does it really make sense that those who spend months or even years toiling away, taking creative, technical and commercial risks are simply the means by which another industry (advertising) gets wealthy?
Don’t hold out for the app stores of traditional games media to be the panacea that fixes this problem. The app stores are the means of distribution for all mobile games but the means of discovery for only a tiny proportion of games. This will not change to any significant degree. The vast, broad mobile games audience does not engage with traditional games media. The dozens of ‘discovery apps’ that are out there currently are (largely) characterised by paid-for promotions and, quite often, dirty underhand tactics to promote shoddy games or to grab advertising revenues from unsuspecting users.
I am convinced that we need to be thinking about how we can ‘pull’ users into games by understanding the interests, behaviours, actions and characteristics of individual users and applying all kinds of (well understood and proven) predictive modelling and targeted recommendation techniques to show them the games that they will more likely enjoy and more likely play for extended periods.
That is what we are working towards; “Making it easy to find good mobile games you will enjoy”. If you are open-minded (or just plain utterly desperate) about the state of mobile games user acquisition, then please drop us a line. We’re largely in stealth mode still but keen to talk to anyone in the industry about how things can improve….hell, even fat fishing boat owners.
Discoverability cited as #1 problem with app ecosystem
From this GamSutra article – In a free-form survey question, developers were asked to identify what they felt to be the biggest problem within the current app development market. Most answers connected to problems with discoverability—albeit from different ends of the spectrum. Developers frequently described app stores as “crowded” and “overpopulated with low-quality apps”; others also noted that users’ expectations for free apps made it hard to charge even $0.99 for their higher-quality app.
Knowing where your new players came from (which user acquisition source) and knowing something about them can be a powerful way to maximise that first session experience in order to maximise initial retention.
SWRVE is a platform that allows you to perform split testing (A/B testing) in social/mobile games and they provide regular webinars on all manner of subjects relating to games analytics. Here’s my summary of their advice in relation to adapting your game based on where the new players come from.
The main acquisition sources are likely to consist of ‘organic’ (social/viral), incentivised installs, promoted adverts/media and cross-promotions. Each of these tell you, generally speaking, that those cohorts of users have a propensity to respond more or less to different elements in game and in different ways.
Players that were acquired through genuine organic (FREE!) sources e.g. through discovery via the Facebook newsfeed or notifications or by a direct message from a friend are most likely drawn in by the social interaction aspect. In this case, SWRVE argue, you should ensure that any social elements in your game are exposed to these players very promptly. This might include opportunities to visit friends’ worlds, donate resources, gift in-game items etc or it might be to challenge them in, for example, a social quiz game. Make sure that these features are available and promoted in game early on to leverage this player behaviour preference.
Players that are acquired through incentivised means (e.g. when they receive free resources in one game in return for installing another game) are commonly thought of as ‘poor quality’ traffic and used most often as a means to get AppStore visibility in order to then acquire better users in a more organic fashion. SWRVE argue that you should still aim to maximise retention from these sources by, for example, ensuring that the core value of your game is exposed to these players with the maximum of haste; let them know why your game is fun immediately. Additionally as you know that these players respond to incentives; offer them rewards straight away (earlier than other players).
Players that are acquired through non-incentivised adverts/promotions in other games clearly have the propensity to chug out of one game in favour of another. To that end, showing them in-game ads to 3rd party games is not a great idea unless you like losing the players you just paid $5 CPIs to acquire. Make sure that in-game ads and cross-promotions are switched off in the first few session to these players; give them a chance to get engages…or better still, to start paying. If after multiple sessions these players show no sign of converting to becoming a paid player then you can switch those promotions back on in order to monetise the traffic from them.
As a subset of the above group, where players have come to you via a video acquisition source then you can assume (again, generally) that they have a preference to video-based media….so use video in the game to keep them engaged. This might be for tutorial elements, scene-setters or for moments of delight when they level up or defeat an opponent.
As an addition to the above, where users have connected via the Facebook API and where you have added demographic information about them, then you can use this to further make your game personalised to individual players in order to improve your KPIs. Examples may be with in-game mentor character choices/genders, colour schemes or language style).
Naturally, SWRVE advise that you don’t just make sweeping generalisations when electing to adopt any of these strategies; make sure you test alternative strategies on statistically identical groups and prove which approaches deliver the optimum KPI improvements. Then ramp up across your entire user base.
You can see all of the previous SWRVE webinar recordings online at http://www.swrve.com/blog/category/webinars
The CoronaLabs Blog featured a guest piece written by Paul Simons, developer of Plasma Pig (iOS and Android). The article is a honest and worrying illustration of how difficult it is for small/indie mobile games developers to get user traction for their games. Game discovery is an issue I am particularly passionate about and Evil27 Games is currently exploring ideas about how to tackle this exact problem (see www.everyonesplaying.com).
In the meantime, I wanted to post my thoughts on the subject to this blog. We are seeking to engage with social/mobile games developers and publishers to share and discuss our ideas. If you are interested in having a chat please drop us a line.
In response to “Guest piece: For the love of game development”, I posted the following response on the CoronaLabs blog
I think your experience is extremely common and not just for one-person developers; it is just as hard for small studios that spend $100k, $250k or more on a game.
I was Studio Manager at a mobile games developer in the UK last year and joined just as they released the first version of a side-scrolling RPG. Whilst I couldn’t claim that the game – at v1.0 – was earth-shatteringly good, it was nonetheless a pretty compelling game (cost us approx $250k) and was free (FreetoPlay at least). We spent in the order of $25k on incentivised installs in order to get AppStore chart visibility in the hope of getting that ‘organic uplift’ that we’re all conditioned to aim for. The reality was that the game hung around the top 50-75 for about a week then fell from view. I recall that we got 50k or so downloads from that but the install rate fell off dramatically once we were no longer in the charts.
My point is that the whole app/game ecosystem is now geared in favour of those with deep pockets and the companies that control access to the player audiences (offers, incentivised installs, in-game promotions, paid-for cross-promotion, paid reviews etc etc). We have ‘free’ distribution as small/indie devs but we do not have free access to players; far from it.
I see ‘services’ that claim to be able to deliver a top 10 chart position for $100k and I regularly hear of developers/publishers who are spending $100k on week one burst advertising. The larger publishers are reportedly spending between $1m-$5m on marketing some titles. This isn’t a level playing field and is rapidly pricing all but the big boys out of user acquisition (read; “commercial viability”). IMHO this is failing not just the smaller dev community but consumers. That’s a broken market in my view. The correlation between product visibility and product quality is, generally speaking, highly distorted and that is not good for the wider industry as a whole.
Its unrealistic to think that marketing isn’t important in a maturing competitive industry, but when success is so highly-dependent upon AppStore visibility (or, for example, Facebook App Centre visibility) and, in 99% of cases, this is only achieved through huge advertising/incentivised installs, then the outlook doesn’t look too rosy for small devs (and, by extension, tools makers like Corona ).
Apple have just started incorporating user reviews into their ranking algorithm but all that means is that companies (cough..Zynga) go and pay 250 people for a 5* rating and bingo they rank in the top 20.
Personally I think there needs to be a better way to connect GOOD games with players that might want them. I’m working on an early-stage concept for a discovery platform that can surface visibility to games that are engaging their audiences irrespective of the volume and velocity of installs or the current revenue levels.
I’d dearly love input from smaller/indie mobile games developers along the way. I’ve set up a launch site for devs and players alike to register their interest and am currently (separately) in the process of raising some seed funding to get an MVP of the platform together.
If the potential platform/service is of potential interest to you please do visit http://www.everyonesplaying.com and tell us your email address so we can let you know how things progress.
It’s no longer good enough to “just have a good game”….but it should be!
Technology selection risks
So much is written and said about how it is now feasible for a single-person or micro team indie studio to exist these days, what with digital distribution, rapid/easy dev tools and a much more diverse player audience. Indeed it is so celebrated I recently asked on Twitter as to whether being an indie game developer is the new ‘being in a band’?
The flip side of this celebration if the virtues of being an indie is that you are far more at risk from external factors that you cannot possibly predict or plan for. This happened to me just today.
We recently got a verbal OK on a project for a local client. I cannot disclose anything about the client or the project but I can say that I had proposed a multi-platform game (iOS and Android), that had asynchronous competitive multi-player and a bunch of cloud features. This was very achievable (note ‘was’) due to the dev tools we prefer to use; Corona SDK and their recently released cloud gaming services.
The Corona Cloud services were pretty much unique as they enabled developers to quickly set up and integrate not only leaderboards and achievements but to have a single, cross-platform sign-in, cross-platform asynch play and cloud synching, CMS and analytics all from a single application build process. Apple’s Game Centre and Google Play Services offer most of this but not in a cross-platform way. Developers need to create two versions of their games and the feature sets manifest in very different ways meaning a different user experience depending on whether you are an iOS or Android device user. Cross-platform asynchronous competitive gameplay requires a proprietary (hence costly) approach.
It was with much angst, therefore, when I received an email from Corona Lab’s COO this morning informing me that they have decided to pull their new cloud services permanently. Clearly they recognized that they couldn’t deliver the vision that they had promised and they had taken then commendable decision to own up to that, receive a lot of flak now but avoid much more pain for them and their developer community in the future.
However, I now need to deliver on the project proposal that I promised, in the same time frame and for the same budget but know, now, that will require significantly more effort on my part.
Making technology and service provision choices is never easy irrespective of your scale but for a micro studio, where your options are probably already limited by lack of free capital, getting those decisions right is even more critical.
So…for those of you that don’t know (most people probably), I’ve been working on a mobile puzzle game called Lunar Loot Drop. The game is intended to offer the accessibility and ease of play that games like Diamond Dash and Candy Crush Saga provide but with a less cutesy theme and a more cerebral challenge. The game blends ‘falling blocks’ and ‘sliding squares’ puzzle game formats, adds a bit of crafting, time pressures and a unique theme and character back story and will be initially released for iOS (optimized for iPad) in Q3.
I’ve worked in and around the games industry for about a dozen years in my own companies in various design, producer, project manager, product owner and bizdev capacities. I’ve never made a game by myself – i.e. actually done the coding – in all my years. I had some experience with BASIC in the 80’s, HTML and classic ASP/SQL in the late 90s and some ad-hoc AS2 exposure in the early 2000’s but I haven’t had any formal computer science or software engineering training. As such I would not dare to call myself a developer.
About six months ago I started learning Lua and the Corona SDK. I was blown away by Corona’s capabilities and with the user ecosystem around it (200,000 developers and counting). The last six months have seen many new features and improvements to the offering, such as some heavyweight cloud gaming utilities and I have found it to be an excellent tool thus far. I’ve thrown myself into mastering Corona and Lua and have since written about 30,000 lines of code which now form Lunar Loot Drop. Actually it is probably more like 50,000 if you include the really bad stuff that I have since re-written. There is no official IDE as such so I’ve hand-coded everything in Notepad++, but that is no bad thing and forces a certain discipline and requirement to do things properly.
The game is really taking shape now albeit there is a long way to go before it will meet that ‘minimum viable product’ stage. What started out as a physics-based ‘sort em up’ is now quite different in nature but, I believe, much more coherent as an entertainment product. I’ve had my kids play it and shown a few people – with plenty of useful feedback – and I hope to get a formal alpha release out to select individuals via Testflight in a few weeks time.
My goal is that Lunar Loot Drop serves to begin to build a player community upon which I can build EVIL27 Games as a business. I don’t hold any monetary aspirations for the game, certainly not in its initial public guises. The cost of paid-for player acquisition is beyond my budget and I can’t compete on production values not feature scope with well-resourced studios. What I do hope for is a bundle of great insight and lessons learned about taking a mobile game from concept to the digital stores and then through a journey of constant iteration based on quantitative and qualitative feedback.
I’m going to post regular updates on my progress plus share some screenshots and artwork. I’d truly appreciate any input, questions, feedback or ideas about the game itself, about learning to programme or anything game industry-related.
‘Chief Evil Officer’
We really should have done this years ago, as TIGA is such a great trade association for independent games companies….but we’re finally fully paid-up, card carrying members of TIGA. (We do get a card, right?)
Publish Date: Thursday 9th May 2013
TIGA, the organisation representing the games industry, has welcomed social mobile games developer EVIL27Games as its latest member.
Founded by Kevin Corti who has 13 years’ experience of developing serious, social and mobile games, the company focuses on mid-core tablet games and specifically with an interest in exploring the potential for user-generated content for mobile gamers. It has an iOS and Android puzzle game in development which it will launch this summer but the company is currently exploring ideas around user-generated content, or ‘mobile modding’ as a mechanism for driving user acquisition and an engaged and loyal player base.
Kevin Corti said:
“The games market is increasingly becoming one characterised by micros and small independent developers. Our belief is that our collective success lies in positive collaboration and cooperation and we see TIGA as the perfect body to help foster this.”
Dr Richard Wilson, CEO of TIGA, said:
“EVIL27 is a young and enthusiastic company and the type that TIGA is well placed to help with, not least through our provision of networking events, best practice information and advice and discounts from third party suppliers. Networking is particularly important for companies of this size and we are in a great position to assist. I am delighted that Kevin Corti’s EVIL27 Games has joined TIGA.”
Notes to editors:
TIGA is the trade association representing the UK’s games industry. The majority of our members are either independent games developers or in-house publisher owned developers. We also have games publishers, outsourcing companies, technology businesses and universities amongst our membership. Since 2010, TIGA has won 14 business awards and has been nominated a finalist for 16 other awards.
TIGA’s vision is to make the UK the best place in the world to do games business. We focus on three sets of activities: political representation, generating media coverage and developing services that enhance the competitiveness of our members. This means that TIGA members are effectively represented in the corridors of power, their voice is heard in the media and they receive benefits that make a material difference to their businesses, including a reduction in costs and improved commercial opportunities.
For further information, please contact Dr Richard Wilson, TIGA CEO on: 07875 939 643, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.